In the early morning hours of September 8, 2009 with a full moon, the operation began. The moon provided extra visibility, not necessarily a good thing when you are walking into an ambush!
Approximately 60 Afghan soldiers, 20 border police officers, 13 U.S. Marine and Army trainers along with a reporter made their way towards the village of Ganjgal, having left a nearby U.S. military base around 3:00 am. The base, located in the Shakani District, is quite close to the Pakistan border.
Editor's Note: You might be thinking this is about Dakota Meyer and how his actions resulted in a Medal of Honor! You would be wrong! It is also not about the 4 U.S. service members, 8 Afghan troops and Afghan interpreter who died that day. It is in fact about Army SFC Kenneth Westbrook. Who? I hope that isn't your reaction.
The operation was set up per a request by the village elders. They were looking for more security and protection from the Taliban. There had already been previous contact with the Taliban in the area during a similar operation in Dam Dura. Afghan Army members proposed the operation, which was refined and given the go-ahead by U.S. trainers.
The ANA would be accompanied by American forces who were to provide advice and if needed, call for air and artillery support. American troops set up the operation, working out the details.
At the insistence of the elders from Ganjgal, only the Afghan troops would be going into Ganjgal, searching for weapons and carrying out a Key Leader Engagement (KLE). A meeting was planned with the elders to talk about setting up police patrols. The elders did not wish to have the Americans there doing the actual search.
It was known ahead of time that air (CAS) and artillery (CCA)support had not been designated for this operation. It happens. However, given the fact that previous operations/missions in the area had already come under attack by the Taliban it might be viewed as unusual to go ahead with a mission without that direct support.
Scouts were sent to "infil 2 hours prior to mission kick off." They were providing over watch for the towns of Dam Dura and Ganjgal. Perched high on the valley walls they watched and waited. All was quiet. No movement was detected.
Vehicles were used to get in close to the village of Ganjgal advancing slowly along a narrow track of a road. As they advanced, the villages lights suddenly began blinking out in the pre-dawn hour, leaving the village in darkness.
The village elders refused to have the Americans enter the village. Their role was to provide a presence outside the village of Ganjgal, give advice if needed and to call in air and artillery support should it be needed.
After dismounting from their vehicles, and knowing the lights in the village had suddenly gone out when they were still 2 miles away, the soldiers walked slowly toward the village. They walked for approximately one mile up the narrow, winding valley. A valley whose sides were littered with large boulders, caves and terracing. A perfect setting for an ambush. Plenty of secure places to hide and attack from. Heading east up the valley, the soldiers approached slowly unknowingly walking into the kill zone.
5:30am. A moment to never be forgotten by those in that valley that day. Upon entering the kill zone the soldiers were attacked from 3 sides of the valley and from within the village.
Their mission had been compromised!
This came as no surprise to many who found themselves in that kill zone that day. It had happened before.
"Whatever we do always leaks," said Marine Lt. Ademola Fabayo, 28, an operations officer for the trainers from the 3d MarDiv. "You can't trust even some of their soldiers or officers."
The ambush and succeeding firefight lasted for nearly 6 hours.
"The mission was definitely compromised. The elders/police could have easily tipped the enemy off. They knew what day we were coming. All I know is that they were already in position and waiting, and they had a ton of ammo. It was a complex ambush. There was no movement in the town or around it before the main force was engaged."
20 minutes into the firefight, air support was requested. No helicopters are available was the response!
"This is unbelievable. We have a platoon out there and we've got no Hotel Echo," Army Captain William Swenson shouted. "We're pinned down."
The Taliban quickly realized that within minutes, yes I said, minutes, that the upper hand was being held by them! They moved quickly to try and outflank the American and Afghan forces.
35 minutes into the firefight, artillery support was requested so a pullback of troops could occur! Again support was not there!
"They don't have any smoke. They only have Willy Pete," Swenson reported.
Retreat was becoming increasingly impossible without air/artillery support but to stay in place was a death sentence.
Nearly an hour later (approx 7am), white smoke began rolling across the valley floor! Laying down suppressive gunfire, the troops leapfrogged backwards down the valley, hoping to get out of the kill zone.
When the village of Ganjgal was first approached, the main body had proceeded straight ahead towards town. Two smaller groups had split off, one to each side of the valley to take up positions there. The Afghan Border Police and SFC Westbrook were at the trailing end of the maneuver element.
"While nearing the entrance to the objective village, the lead element of Afghan Army and their Marine Advisors were ambushed with heavy machine gun ﬁre, pinning them down at the entrance to the village.
SFC Westbrook and a team of ABP moved forward from the rear of the advancing column to the location of the TAC, moving through increasingly heavy machine gun, RPG and mortar ﬁre.
The small command element of the TAC was pinned down in a series of stone and earthen terraces which provided only limited protection against the direct ﬁre and none from the indirect.
From this location the TAC commander was attempting to reestablish contact with the forward element of his advisors with whom he had lost contact, thought they were less than 100m away."
Less than 100 meters away, pinned down, fighting for their lives, yet nobody could get to them.....there was NO AIR SUPPORT!! Artillery support was less than expected and had only last for a few volleys then it to fell silent!
“We’re surrounded!” Gunny Johnson yelled into his radio, according to witness statements from survivors. “They’re moving in on us!”
Direct calls for help were refused......REFUSED by the leadership at FOB Joyce where the tactical command center was located.
"Swenson and other U.S. forces were farther from the village, but still faced a torrent of enemy fire. He began requesting fire support shortly after the shooting started, the investigation found, but after a few early artillery shells arrived, he and other troops on the ground were denied additional rounds."
Those leaders had decided that the men on the ground, who were fighting for their lives had overestimated the threat they were facing!
"I kept requesting Air and finally they said (redacted) minutes. Still, there was no air. I kept requesting Air until it finally came over an (redacted) after first requested. At that point wounded had already been called in. So it must have been (redacted) or so when air initially came.
The size of the enemy force was well over 50 and they were inside Ganjgal, Dam Darya and the hills at the North, Northeast, East, Southeast and South. Our force was 40 ANA, 20 ABP, (redacted), (redacted). Then enemy was using PKM, RPGs and maybe recoilless also. Before the mission everyone knew it was a stronghold area. No CCA or CAS was on for the mission, we knew that."
Those same leaders at FOB Joyce "were concerned about killing civilians or U.S. service members with artillery rounds."
"CPT (redacted) saw a woman stacking rocks, which is a fighting position. Who would stack rocks in a fire fight, especially after 4 hours of it. No normal women, you would be hiding."
"I saw 2 woman/children fire two RPG at CPL (redacted)."
Still calling for air support, his group bounded forward. Swenson remembers the responses he received back from the operational center.
“I always get these crazy messages saying that, ‘Hey, brigade is saying that you can’t see the target,’ ” Swenson told investigators. “Brigade, you’re in Jalalabad. F--- you, you know? I am staring at the target. ... I just get the craziest things on the radio sometimes. Just people second guessing. If I am willing to put my initials on it, I understand the importance of making sure the rounds hit where they are supposed to hit. I understand the consequences of civilian casualties.”
“When I’m being second-guessed by higher or somebody that’s sitting in an air-conditioned TOC, why [the] hell am I even out there in the first place?” Swenson told investigators. “Let’s sit back and play Nintendo. I am the ground commander I want that f---er, and I am willing to accept the consequences of that f---er.”
Soon, no more was heard from Gunny Johnson and his Marines. Repeated calls over the radio failed to raise a response of any sort from them.
SFC Westbrook along with Captain Swenson began bounding forward to regain a tactical advantage. Realizing that the four Marines might be wounded or worse, they pushed forward hoping to find them.
"SFC Westbrook was wounded when he engaged enemy forces that were attempting to maneuver onto his position."
As SFC Westbrook bounded forward, injuries mounted to his group. Despite having received gunshot wounds to his face and neck, SFC Westbrook kept defending his position, exposing himself to enemy gunfire to keep from being flanked.
The Taliban kept advancing, some of them were wearing Afghan Army uniforms and helmets. Radio calls were received from the Taliban taunting the Americans with death, telling them to lay down their arms and surrender.
Captain Swenson describes SFC Westbrook's actions that day:
"Without regard for his own safety, SFC Westbrook assumed a defensive ﬁghting position on a small terrace that directly exposed him to enemy ﬁre on two sides, but allowed him to prevent the enemy from overrunning the TAC at its weakest point which was nearest the village.
The number of casualties continued to mount within the TAC leaving few to defend it. With no effective cover and occupying a position exposed to and saturated by enemy ﬁre, SFC Westbrook continued to ferociously ﬁght back though he had by now been seriously wounded by direct enemy ﬁre resulting in a wound to his face and neck.
Though wounded for some time, he only alerted others of his condition when he realized that he was losing consciousness as a result of blood loss, and potentially allowing the enemy an undefended ﬂank to exploit.
Even after acknowledging the seriousness of his injuries he continued to ﬁght, deferring medical treatment; only relinquishing his position when he could no longer muster the strength to ﬁre his weapon."
Among the documents released to the families it was noted:
"SFC Kenneth Westbrook sustained a gunshot wound to the right upper chest, three to five upper right rib fractures, a right clavicle fracture, a right scapula fracture and a severe hemorrhage. He also suffered a minor facial laceration."
SFC Westbrook was initially treated on the scene.....with a pressure dressing. He was evacuated by helicopter to the Asadabad FST."
Hours later the bodies of our Marines would be found, stripped of their gear and weapons. They had been shot to death. It was apparent to those who recovered their bodies that Corpsman Layton had been treating another Marine at the time he was shot and killed.
Army Sergeant First Class Kenneth Westbrook survived the battle that day only to die on October 7, 2009 at Walter Reed Medical Center. He died as a result of a blood transfusion that he received while in Afghanistan. A transfusion which his body later rejected.
"He was given blood on the battlefield that ultimately snuffed the life out of him. (He was medvac'ed from Afghanistan to Germany and back to the US on September 11, 2009) I watched my husband of 22 years die in my arms at Walter Reed Army Medical Center on October 7, 2009."
Until the Marines' bodies were found (spotted by a helicopter), no one was aware they had been killed. Heroic measures were taken that day to get to those Marines. A helicopter circling the scene of the ambush was able to locate their bodies, but was unable to land. The fighting was too fierce.
Along with Fabayo, Rodriguez-Chavez, Meyer and an Afghan interpeter, Swenson said they made a last push in a Humvee to get to the missing Marines' bodies.
On February 18, 2010 a summary report was released, as overseen by Army Maj. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti with CJTF-82. An investigation into the events that occurred that day and the planning leading up to the mission into Ganjgal village found "a slew of mistakes."
Congress finally got involved in the investigation as a result of heavy duty pushing by the families of those who died as a result of that ambush.
“The absence of senior leaders in the operations center with troops in contact in the ... battlespace, and their consequent lack of situational awareness and decisive action, was the key failure in the events of 8 September 2009,” the report says. “The actions of ... senior leaders were clearly negligent.”
Intel had misled the planners into believing they would be facing "light harassing fire." Instead the DoD now says, they faced between 100-150 insurgents firing upon them. Fire-support personnel were not even involved in the planning of the operation.
Leadership at the battalion level was missing that day. They "were not continuously present in the operations center." Instead, the task fell to an inexperienced officer who was "not adequately experienced, qualified or trained."
By 8am a more experienced officer took control. Guess what? It was too late!!!! As a result of that delay, the four Marines were dead, SFC Westbrook was critically wounded and close to a dozen Afghan troops had either been injured or killed.
To add insult to injury, the requests from the battlefield had been supported by a battalion NCO who was in charge of overseeing artillery requests. Action was taken "to provide immediate support to the units in Ganjgal valley early in the engagement." Overruled! An Air Force JTAC also tried to bring swift support in response to requests for air support. Again it was Overruled! The summary said they were both "overruled by higher echelons."
Remember the response Captain Swenson received that day from "high echelons........."
“I always get these crazy messages saying that, ‘Hey, brigade is saying that you can’t see the target,’ ” Swenson told investigators. “Brigade, you’re in Jalalabad. F--- you, you know? I am staring at the target. ... I just get the craziest things on the radio sometimes. Just people second guessing. I understand the importance of making sure the rounds hit where they are supposed to hit. I understand the consequences of civilian casualties.”
Swenson told investigators. “I am the ground commander I want that f---er, and I am willing to accept the consequences of that f---er.”
Is it any wonder that the families of those men who died are asking questions? First off, what are the consequences for the actions of those 3 officers from "higher echelons" who failed to provide needed fire support?
Findings support "negligent" leadership “contributing directly to the loss of life.”
A severe letter of reprimand was to be placed in the files of two of the three officers. Their names have not been released, so it is not known (publicly) who these officers are. We do know that they are members of Task Force Chosen out of Fort Drum's 10th Mountain Division. The soldiers were from the 1-32 IR, 3d BCT. A letter of reprimand is said to be a death sentence for any officer wanting to advance. Well the actions of those officers certainly seem to have led to a death sentence for the men in Ganjgal, Afghanistan on September 8, 2009.
“I’m still pro-military, but it’s a tragedy if these officers get off so lightly with just a reprimand,” said Susan Price, the mother of Gunnery Sgt. Aaron Kenefick, who was killed in the ambush. “Why are they still in command? Where the hell are these officers, and why did they get just a slap on the wrist?”
Army Lt. Col. Clarence Counts, a spokesman for CJTF-82 in Afghanistan:
“All the factors in this case were reviewed thoroughly, and the key individuals have been held accountable and dealt with in a manner consistent with service regulations,”
I find it very interesting that 2 separate investigations were ordered by Army Maj. Gen. Scaparrotti. The first was led by an Army major, while the second investigation was led by and conducted in tandem by an Army and a Marine colonel. Was Scaparrotti feeling the need to make sure he has dotted the i's and cross his t's here? Thus the two independent investigations?
The Marine Corps is known for being stingy in handing out medals. They require documentation and more documentation, firsthand accounts of actions taken and that is just to get the paperwork started. Ask any Marine who has been in the Corps for any length of time. He won't disagree. He might also tell you that a good Marine isn't interested in receiving a medal for his actions. He has a job to do and does what it takes to get it done! Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that the other branches don't take the awarding of medals seriously, but those Marines hand out far fewer, in my personal opinion, then the other branches.
Why bring up the point about the Marines and medals? Have you taken a look at who received medals as a result of their actions that day? Let's look.
Marine Lt. Ademola Fabayo Navy Cross
Marine 1st Lt. Michael Johnson Bronze Star with "V"
Marine Gunnery Sgt Edwin "Wayne" Johnson Bronze Star with "V"
Marine Gunnery Sgt Aaron Kenefick Bronze Star with "V"
Marine Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez Navy Cross
Army SFC Kenneth Westbrook Bronze Star
Navy Hospital Corpsman 3rd class James Layton Bronze Star with "V"
Marine Cpl Dakota Meyer Medal of Honor
Why hasn't Captain William Swenson received any recognition for his actions that day? Although there is word that something is in the works, the military refuses to discuss medals that haven't been presented.
Mrs. Charlene Westbrook, wife of SFC Kenneth Westbrook had refused to accept the reports regarding what happened in Ganjgal that day, her husband's treatment and his Bronze Star.
She has contacted her Congressmen and representatives in Colorado. The results? Nada! So she widened her circle seeking help from others.
"Congressman Walter Jones from NC tried to 'help' but he accepted the military's version of why they did not aid our men, pure BS if you ask me."
Mrs. Westbrook has continued to push for answers on why 2 of the 3 officers in charge that day have only received a letter of reprimand! Why Captain Swenson has received NO recognition for his actions that day! Why her husband received only a Bronze Star that day!
"We are now in the process of getting aid from Congresswoman Kathy Hochul of NY but I am not sure what is holding up the process of asking for a Congressional hearing."
That being said, it still hasn't stopped Mrs. Westbrook from seeking help from other sources.
"I am questioning the Army and why they did not aid my husband and his men on the battlefield when they were ambushed in the Kunar Valley of Afghanistan. They called for help and were repeatedly denied as their cries for help were heard over and over again by the very officers who I hold responsible for my husband's death.
I have also been criticized for being too involved and that I need to stay out of the Army's business. How can I?
Ken dedicated 22+ years of his life faithfully serving this country.
With that said I was by his side all those years and I find it my business to find out why my husband died by negligence by the very institution he faithfully served."
Editor's Note: There is a wealth of information out there regarding this ambush, the medals, the heroes, time frames and more. Taking sworn statements released under the FOIA, quotes from articles and piecing together military reports I have tried to present a factual article about the events that day, revolving around SFC Westbrook.
There is little information about his actions that day. His commanding officer, Captain William Swenson, has provided a statement of his actions, which I have used.
A good place to start researching would be here, should you chose to look further. There are NO unbiased reports out there. We all have our opinion based on either having being there that day, what we have read, what we were told.
Here is my question for you, after seeing the list of names and medals. What are the chances that SFC Westbrook missed a Bronze Star with "V" because he died at Walter Reed instead in the Ganjgal valley of Afghanistan?
Nobody is sneezing at a Bronze Star! Not at all. Just at the inconsistencies between the medals the Marines received versus those the Army gave out or in Captain Swenson case never received.
Mrs. Westbrook has repeatedly appealed to the Army for more information, for clarification and for a Congressional hearing into the matter from the Army.
When the parents/family members of the Marines killed that day protested the findings, something was done about it. They at least received more information from the Marine Corps than Mrs. Westbrook has from the Army.
What needs to happen now is for a reporter from CNN or the likes to dig into this case, exposing all the buried details that the Army has refused to divulge. There is more to this than we have been led to believe.
I also have recently found out that Captain Swenson put in for an upgrade to SFC Westbrook's Bronze Star to a Silver Star. That has been turned down.
"The words of Captain Will Swenson (Ken's Captain) is not good enough to upgrade an award for Ken's courage and sacrifice. It will now take the act of Congress to make the upgrade. It is not enough that he fought for his life and that of others with NO support, was wounded and DIED because of the negligent US Army officers. He suffered to his dying day and no one has given a damn."
Mrs. Westbrook maintains a Facebook page "SFC Kenneth Westbrook: A Hero, A Warrior Forever Remembered" honoring her beloved hero.
"My husband did a job he loved and we both knew the dangers. We were not naive about this. What we NEVER expected was for the Army, the very institution he GAVE 22 years of life to, abandoned and killed him in the end.
Some have said about me,"that widow needs to get on with her life, the Army is none of her business, she needs to get over it" and the many asinine things I have heard, I tell them to stand in my shoe as a 22 year Army spouse and then say those words again.
I find it and WILL make it my business because this was also my life, no one will EVER take that away from me."